Lost Walls: A graffiti road trip through Tunisia
One of the founding forefathers of the modern art form of ‘calligraffiti’, in the past few years French/Tunisian artist El Seed has seen his unique and inventive efforts championed on the walls of the world’s art galleries right across to various Louis Vuitton fashion collaborations.
This year he launched his first book Lost Walls, artistically documenting his four week calligraffiti journey across his mother country, Tunisia.
What was your main ambition with this project?
It was to show the different side to Tunisia. After the revolution everybody was always talking about the political side, and at some point I feel the media has forgotten to talk about the deepness of the place, the heritage, the culture. It was really important for me to bring that back, to remind people that this is what makes us what we are today and we should not forget that. So the point of the project was crossing the whole country, not stopping in the main cities but instead in the small ones, to bring back a part of history that people may have forgotten or perhaps didn’t know about.
Tell us a bit about calligraffiti and how long you’ve been doing it…
It’s basically a mix of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti, many people think I’m the one who created that concept but artists have been doing it since the late Seventies and Eighties. I’m not a calligrapher, I don’t know the traditional rules to calligraphy, I’m a graphic artist painting in Arabic.
Since I was a kid I painted and drew, and I got into graffiti in the late Nineties. In the beginning of 2000 I started learning Arabic – writing and reading it – and then I discovered calligraphy around 2004. A couple of years later I moved to New York and returned to art, painting and stuff. And it was a little after that when I started trying caligraffiti. My work now is based really on the proverbial tradition, where we speak about messages and bringing messages to the community. Because if you paint on the street, you need to have messages relevant to why you’re painting them. So I made sure every place I went in Tunisia I left a message addressed to the people, telling a story about them in the city I was working in.
Did you have a particular idea about the objects or places you wanted to paint on before you set off?
There was nowhere that was planned in advance, no. Well, the only place I knew about before was the house of my grandparents, so I asked my dad and my uncle if it would be possible to paint it when I was in Tunisia. Otherwise it was just a spontaneous project, I knew which city I wanted to go to and that was it. But you get to these places, you speak to these people and they tell you their story. If there was something particularly interesting in what they’d tell me, I’d say “this is what I want to talk about in my painting.” Then I would look around the place, find a wall or something that speaks to me and I’d say “this is exactly what I want.” It might be the texture or the location, the wall may even have nothing special about it, but perhaps it’s what behind it that speaks so much…so that’s how I decide. One guy said, “Sometimes you need somebody else to tell you how beautiful you are” and I like that phrase.
How long on average would each painting take?
They would vary from as little as 30 minutes right up to three days. For example, in the location where they film parts of the old Star Wars movies – it’s called Tatooine in the films but the place is called Ong el Jemel – my first goal was to vandalise it. Because I was so upset to see on the Tunisian tourism website when they advertise this place they completely forget about the real heritage. They tell you the heritage is the film set, even though there are clusters from centuries ago that are totally abandoned. So I arrived there, at first checking there was no security, and I saw this old man sitting on the floor in one of the houses. I told him about my project, and after short conversation he told me I could do whatever I want, paint inside or out. I was so surprised by his answer I did my painting in about twenty minutes.
Did you ever have any conflicts over the work you were doing?
One place I went, I spotted a house I wanted to use and asked who it belonged to. A man said it was his and gave me permission to paint. Half way through a man came out with his uncle and said, “What are you doing? Do you think I’m dead for you to paint on my house?” I explained that I was told it belonged to this other man, that I was sorry and asked if I could finish my work and then paint over it. That was fine, and then two hours later when it was finished and I was ready to paint over it, the nephew of the man came over and said, “Actually my uncle really likes it, can we keep it?”
So you didn’t see anyone trying to remove any of the finished paintings?
Well there was one place, it was the last wall I did, where I finished at night and didn’t take the picture because it was too dark. I came back the next day to shoot it and somebody had scratched it totally. But it looked cool! So I shot it anyway and it’s in the book. People did ask why I scratched my own painting up, but I explained that it was vandalism. As it happened I quite liked the end result though.
Are there any places in the UAE that you’d like to use as your canvas for a similar project?
Sure, there are so many potential places here. I find it really sad that street art hasn’t reached here and that people may have the wrong idea about it. I see so many spots that I’d like to work, but obviously without the right authorisation I cannot. I really think Lost Walls could have been done here, and it would have perhaps given the public a different image of the UAE – that it’s not only malls and big towers and beaches. I go to places like Deira and see so many areas with history that I’d love to work. It’s definitely something I’d like to do before I leave in later this year.